Technology and Charlotte Mason Homeschooling

So much has changed in the last hundred years since Charlotte Mason lived, especially in the area of technology; technologies have been developed since her day. What is the place of technology in a Charlotte Mason home school? Let’s discuss that today. Joining me today for this discussion is my friend and coworker, Doug Smith.

Sonya: Doug, thanks for joining us again.

Doug: Good to be here.

Sonya: We have talked before about technology, but that was more, is it the big evil, or is it something that can be productive and useful?

Doug: Yeah, we had a conversation about screen time, and in that, we talked more about, what are the guardrails around our children and the way we use technology? Are we a consumer or a creator? Those kinds of things. We’re not going to be talking about that this time, but readers can reference that one if they are interested.

Sonya: That one was more: should you use technology? How should you use it if you choose to? For today, I want to talk more about what technology, if any, is compatible with a Charlotte Mason approach to uphold her principles of education, and is there a way to incorporate technology into that wisely? 

Doug: I ran across a really interesting story in Charlotte’s book, School Education, and what I love about it is that what she espoused there aligns with a lot of what I believe in how we approach technology. She tells this interesting story about going to visit what was called the Peace and War Exhibit, or Museum. It was in Lucerne, Switzerland, and it was a pretty big deal at the time, and she traveled there to see it.

She talks about the model of a torpedo and that there were these elaborate diagrams in cross sections, models, and all of these things; and as she viewed those, she didn’t get it. She didn’t understand how it worked.

Later, at lunch, one of the people she was sitting with at the table was knowledgeable on the subject, and he pulled out his glasses case and used that as a very simple model of a torpedo and explained it very simply. She understood it right away.

She made the observation that elaborate models don’t make a very good foundation for our education. They’re too much all at once. They’re like a flood, and we need to build our knowledge. Now, there’s a place for those things, that more elaborate knowledge, but that’s not what we start out with, right? And like so many things in a Charlotte Mason education, guided discovery is the key. We learn more when we have to discover it, and we retain more when we have to discover it, so a lot of what we do with children is guide them in making those discoveries for themselves.

Sonya: And that applies to how we use technology as well. As you said, we don’t want it to be a flood or give them everything all at once: “here you need to learn this whole diagram.” But little by little, we are guiding them to discover. A lot of times with technology, as you said, it’s not a discovery, it is an information dump. “Here, I’ve already done the work, now you just learn this.”

Doug: Right. And I love the way she said… I have to get the exact quote here. (pulls out phone)

Sonya:  I noticed you’re using technology for this. (laughs)

Doug: I am using technology for this. (laughs)

Sonya: But we could just as well open the book, but I just had to say that.

Doug: She said when we do those elaborate models, “…stale on the senses and produce a torpor of thought the moment they are presented.”

Sonya: “Torpor of thought.”

Doug: I didn’t know the word, torpor; I had to look it up, and it means lethargic or without thought.

Sonya: Yeah, it’s like when the eyes glaze over; it’s like the look on the kid’s face when he’s watching TV.

Doug: Yes. And maybe torpor is an old word that we need to bring back, because it applies so well to technology. It’s like, “Johnny, you’ve got to put the phone away now; you’ve got yourself in a torpor again.”

Sonya: Yeah, because that is a poignant word; that is a perfect word for what the look is on his face, where he’s just spaced out.

Doug: It’s the endless scrolling. Or you might say to your friend, “You know, we’ve been friends for a long time, and I’ve enjoyed having conversations with you, but since you got that new phone, and you keep getting it out over our meals, our conversations have become ‘torporous.’” 

Sonya: Just drop that little word in there.

Doug: Drop it in there. People might say, “What’s that?” then you can talk about it. 

Sonya: Yes, good, so that’s what we don’t want the technology to produce with our kids. So here’s a question: did Charlotte Mason use technology?

Doug: She did. And in that passage, she talks about some of the things that she used. She said the exceptions would be the microscope, the telescope, and the Magic Lantern. So we know that a microscope is something that allows us to see things that are very small that we couldn’t see otherwise. A telescope allows us to see things that are far away that we couldn’t see otherwise. And most of us haven’t heard of a Magic Lantern. I ran across one at an antique shop recently. It’s a little device, about this big. (holds up hands)

Sonya: About the size of a sack of flour, maybe?

Doug: Yeah. It’s a little projector; it has a light bulb in it, and then there’s kind of like a film. The pictures were about this big, and you could put them in there, and it would project it up on the wall. So that allowed them to do picture study in the classroom. They could show things from other countries, places that you couldn’t visit. 

Sonya: So it’s like an original slide projector.

Doug: Yes. And then later on, we know that she used the phonograph or, she called it the gramophone, that’s what they called it.

Sonya: Oh yes, for music study.

Doug: Yes, she called it a gramophone. Could you imagine what that opened up? Because that came about in her lifetime. We don’t think about how readily music is available to us at an instant. We can stream it from anywhere, listen to anything we want. But to do music study in her day, before that, you had to go to a performance. And now this opened up a whole world. After her death, in her schools, they continued to have the phonograph with a lending library, and you could check out records that were shared all over the place. So she did embrace those things. The commonality is that they were purposeful. It wasn’t technology for technology’s sake. It was technology that brought things to us that we couldn’t otherwise experience and that were also useful.

Charlotte Mason did embrace technologies. It wasn’t technology for technology’s sake. It was technology that brought things to us that we couldn’t otherwise experience and that were also useful.

Sonya: I think that’s a key point. The purpose was to help the child discover. Just put it before them and let them discover for themselves from these items or experiences that they would not otherwise have been able to experience. And it’s the same thing for us today; what we don’t want to do is use these “appliances,” as she called them, or technology, to stifle our children’s imagination. And there’s a fine line there. She talked at one point about when they read about a place, they need to be able to picture it in their minds’ eyes. The habit of imagination was important to her. She did not want them to not be able to read a passage and picture it, but she also was wise enough to know that you can’t picture something if it is so far removed from what you have experienced, you have no starting point to even imagine it. That’s when the appliances, the technology, was helpful, to bridge that gap.

Doug: Yeah, and when we look at the internet, there’s a dumpster load of garbage there, but there’s potential for bringing things to us. And the twaddle rule applies here. The quality of what we allow children to consume, or ourselves, and its educational value, varies greatly on the quality of the content. 

Sonya: We don’t want to stifle the imagination. We don’t want to stifle the habit of attention. A lot of technology today—maybe you’ve done some research on it—a lot of the technology switches camera angles, boom boom boom boom boom boom boom, and thus, it wires our brains to only pay attention for that split second and be ready for something to change rather than giving it our full undivided attention. We don’t want to use technology that will stifle imagination, stifle attention span, stifle curiosity.

Doug: There’s also a temptation—because there’s so much there in this “fire hose”—to take on too much and not take the time to, as Charlotte Mason said, to ruminate on what we’re learning. Sometimes we have to learn to “shut off that spigot” and take some time and let it settle in for a little while before we go back, rather than just consume, consume, consume.

Sonya: We’ve got to process it; otherwise, we are just a consumer.

Doug: Recently a friend posted on social media asking about her child who wanted a cell phone, and she asked for advice. These things are expensive, the plans are expensive, I’m not sure if I want him to have one, and so on. And it was interesting that the majority of the responses were about how to get a good-priced cell phone plan. 

Sonya: Nobody talked about the purpose of it and whether he should have it?

Doug: Just a little bit. And my mind immediately went to: has this child proved in social situations that he could use a device and not isolate himself? Has this child proven the mastery of devices, that they’re not consuming him? It’s those kinds of things that we often don’t think about. Does this device enrich his life or drag him down? What are the purposes, what are the goals for it? Do you have any? Or is it just, “I want something shiny because everybody else has one?”

Does this device enrich the child’s life or drag him down? What are the purposes, what are the goals for it?

Sonya: Yes, those are such crucial questions to think through. And Charlotte was nothing if not intentional with her choices. It behooves us to do the same.

Doug: Let’s talk about some tech that we have today and how it might align, or not align, with some of those things. One that I thought of is e-books and e-book readers. They allow us access to a library on the go that can be valuable.

Sonya: Now, for those of our readers who don’t know what an e-book reader is, is that one that reads it aloud to you?

Doug: No, those are available of course, but I’m talking about a device that lets you have a library that you can read like a book.

Sonya: Okay, so on the device itself you can see the words of the book.

Doug: Of course, so many pieces of our technology allow us to communicate, and so, if we can be in touch with one another, if we can develop relationships, foster communication, those are good things.

Sonya: Yes, right. That reminds me of when our kids were growing up, and we lived a thousand miles apart, but they were constantly in touch with each other, creating movies together. 

Doug: Writing books,

Sonya: Writing scripts, writing books, 

Doug: Correcting each other’s grammar, all those kinds of things.

Sonya: So they were using it in a productive way, not just to idle away the time because they had nothing else to do. When you mentioned the Magic Lantern and seeing pictures of people who live far away from you, it’s the same thing now, you can communicate with those people. My husband talks about how he has a group of friends who are from all these different countries, and it never ceases to amaze me how, just at the drop of a hat, he can be talking with people in all these other countries instantly. That’s common, I guess, for the kids growing up today, but for us it still is a wonder. But the art of communication itself needs to take precedence over the technology.

Doug: Yes. In the same way, with communication, the internet can give us access to experts, or skills, or courses, or someone who speaks another language that we are learning. Those learning opportunities are plentiful. 

Sonya: So again, it comes back to what you were saying: what we cannot access for ourselves in our own sphere, we have opportunities to connect with those and form relations with those things more easily now.

Doug: We can have access to historical documents, historical media, that we wouldn’t have access to otherwise. I recently ran across something interesting. I collect old records, and I recently ran across this old Edison record from the 1920s, and it was from the time of World War I. It was a song about that experience, and that launched me off into a whole study of the time period. I was able to go online and find other materials from that time period: music and documents and things that helped me understand the mindset and develop a relationship with those ideas and times. 

Sonya: So it’s a supplement to your thought process, not a replacement for thinking for yourself. Nice. 

Doug: I’ll put a question mark on one: virtual reality headsets. The question mark comes because, if I put this on my face, I can’t see you, right? But, at the same time, I can look at something in a way that looks very real. I could walk through the Great Pyramids. I could take a tour of a museum in a faraway city as if I’m there and walking through it, and it looks very realistic. But again, I’m isolated when I do that. There’s a solution to that, and it comes from our childhood. Did you have, when you grew up, a View-Master?

Sonya: Yes, I did.

Doug: Okay, we put the little reels in, and we could look at things 3D. And there was a lot of educational content for those.

Sonya: Yes. But only one person could look at it at a time.

Doug: Yeah, but you know what our solution was? “Hey! Look at this!”

Sonya: Oh yeah, that’s true. We did pass it back and forth.

Doug: But we have to be intentional about the use of those kinds of things. And you can pass that back and forth; you can find ways to use that.

Sonya: That reminds me of what you said earlier about guided discovery. It’s not just discovery. It is guided by a wise, older person. 

Doug: There are also some technologies that fall into tools that we can use in our study and our discovery. One I was thinking of was for nature study: trail cams. I need to describe that, because some people might not be aware of it. They’re cameras with motion detectors, usually on a stake that you can plop down somewhere—like if you have access to a wooded area or something, you can put the camera there. You could put it on a trail where you see an animal trail. Then you can come back in a week and download the pictures, and you would see what animals are in the area. Now, here’s where we need to be careful: the purpose isn’t just to check off, “I’ve seen those.”

Sonya: “There, I did nature study!” 

Doug: “I did nature study!” It’s to say, “Oh, now I’m aware that there are coyotes in this area. Now I want to study those further.” In the same way, I saw a project that someone did, taking a little tiny computer board and a microphone and hung it outside and made it so that it could recognize bird calls, and it would give him an alert when there were new birds in the area. Again, this is not, “I’m checking off the birds. I’m done with that one, I’m done with that one.” Instead, it’s, “Now I can go out and make an observation; try to see it, try to learn further from that.” But you can use that as a tool for further study. 

Sonya: It’s further study, using your own mental powers to do the further study. It’s not a substitute for putting forth the mental effort yourself.

Doug: And then I have a couple of final ones: tools that develop skills that could turn into careers. So, learning computer coding or design; so much of graphic design happens using technology now. Or even 3D printing: developing models that might turn into a product or learning those skills, even just for having exposure to 3D spatial concepts and skills and measurement and things like that. Those can be valuable for developing career skills.

Sonya: And you could start, again, laying the foundation first, before you get there. If you’re doing paper sloyd, learning the 3D stuff, then it will step up so that you can use the technology as a tool rather than as a replacement for your own effort.

Doug: And again, we don’t give that elaborate model, that flood, first thing off. We give basics and then you build those skills. Charlotte related to that when she was talking about oral lessons, right, and that the blah blah blah blah blah blah is like starting a child out on crutches. And she said appliances, technology, for us, are the same way.

Sonya: So they are very chary of which appliances they use and how they use them. I think there’s another word we could resurface along with terper, no, torpor.

Doug: Torpor.

Sonya: I’m going to have to practice that before I can resurface that one, yeah, torpor and chary; those are good words to use, or at least the principles behind them are good to guide us in our using technology in a Charlotte Mason home school. Thanks for all those ideas, Doug.

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